Anchorage Seniors Raising the Bar
by Jen Dobias/CHN Reporter
Going into their last collegiate season, Alaska-Anchorage’s five seniors set only one goal.
“We wanted to be part of turning the Seawolves program into a winning culture,” Matt Bailey said. “We talked a lot as a group about just coming to work and doing the little things every day, making sure we’re the hardest working guys and hoping that rubs off on the other guys.”
And, so far, the seniors have elevated their play to put UAA in position to have its first winning season since 1992-93 and also make a deep playoff run.
“It’s what every program looks for,” first-year head coach Matt Thomas said. “You look for people to make considerable jumps from year to year, and you always look for your senior class to not only lead but be difference makers on the ice.”
Seniors have led the way at every position. Up front, Bailey and Jordan Kwas are first and second on the team in scoring. With 24 points (13 goals, 11 assists), Bailey has already set a new career high, while Kwas is one point shy of tying his career best, having posted 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists).
“They’re very different players, but the end result is very similar,” Thomas said. “Jordan Kwas is a very, very skilled, smart, great passing forward. If there’s somebody open, he has the ability to find them. Matt Bailey is a rugged, hard-nosed player who can really shoot a puck.”
The Seawolves aren’t a high-scoring team, ranked seventh in the WCHA with an average of 2.58 goals per game. Bailey and Kwas play on separate lines to spread out UAA’s main offensive threats, but Thomas consistently puts the duo out together in certain situations.
“When the game’s on the line – we need a goal, we’re protecting a lead, any one of those scenarios – it’s usually Bailey and Kwas who go out there,” Thomas said. “You can tell they definitely brought their game to a new level this year.”
Bailey, in particular, has been able to come through in the clutch. He’s tied for first in the nation with five game-winning goals and also assisted on three more winners.
“Matt Bailey is a guy I can talk about for days,” Kwas said. “He’s going to make it to the NHL if it takes eight years. His hard work and motivation is just inspiring.”
Meanwhile, Quinn Sproule has anchored the defense corps. One of three UAA defensemen to appear in every game, he has logged key minutes and been a mentor for the five underclassmen blueliners.
“Quinn’s a tough, gritty kid,” Chris Kamal said. “He’s willing to sacrifice the body out there, whether he’s banging into forwards or blocking shots.”
Both senior goaltenders, Kamal and Rob Gunderson, have also stepped up at different points in the season. At the beginning of the year, Michael Matyas was given the chance to win the starting job because the coaching staff, looking to the future, wanted to see what the redshirt freshman could do.
“As a result of giving Matyas ample opportunity early, one of the seniors was going to be shoved to the side. It happened to be Chris Kamal,” Thomas said. “That’s a hard thing when you’re a senior to deal with. You always envision your senior year as your year.”
After Matyas was sidelined with an injury, Gunderson stepped in and started nine of UAA’s 11 games from Nov. 2 to Dec. 7. While it took Kamal until Nov. 30 to make his first appearance, he has made nine consecutive starts – the most of a UAA goaltender this year – since Dec. 14.
And Kamal has been good enough to steal wins. During UAA’s sweep of Minnesota State in mid-January, he made 62 saves and allowed only two goals over the two games. Overall, he has posted a 6-3-1 record with a 1.95 GAA and a .917 save percentage.
“I tried to be patient and wait for my turn to get in there. It came later than I would have liked, but it came and I’ve been trying to play my best,” Kamal said. “I have to continue to be consistent because it’s pretty easy to lose the net with other great goalies like Rob and Mike.”
To their credit, the Seawolves, led by their senior class, have seized the opportunity to become a contender in the new-look WCHA. Since becoming a full member of the WCHA in 1993, they have yet to post a record above .500. For the past two seasons, they languished at the bottom of the league, enduring a particularly brutal 2012-13 campaign where they finished 4-25-7.
The prestige of being in the old WCHA was something the school always wanted to be a part of. But college hockey's new alignment has the potential to boost Alaska-Anchorage's program in ways it never could before.
“When you’re a program that’s not as strong as some of those other schools, and you’re playing North Dakota one weekend, and the next you’re playing Minnesota, and the next you’re playing some of the best teams in the country, it’s hard to get any momentum,” Kwas said. “The new WCHA gave us a chance to string some wins together, and we’ve definitely done that.”
And winning breeds winning — so that, it's not just that UAA looks better because it's playing "easier" teams, but is also geniunely better. The Seawolves are currently 13-10-3, sit in fourth place in the league and have a realistic shot at earning home ice advantage for the playoffs.
“We’re playing against teams with similar programs as us. It’s a good change for us,” Bailey said. “If you look at the standings, there’s great parity in this new WCHA.”
Having only advanced past the first round of the WCHA Tournament as freshmen, the seniors are willing to do whatever it takes to secure home ice and bring UAA’s first Broadmoor Trophy back to Anchorage. But, even if that none of that happens, they will have made a lasting impression on a program in the midst of establishing a winning culture.
“I had that task of going in and changing the culture and trying to get the players to believe they can win every night,” Thomas said. “And the only way it ever works is the guys that are your leaders need to buy into it from day one. I can’t credit the seniors enough for the way they’ve bought not only into the mindset of how we’re going to do things but the day-to-day implication of it all. They absolutely walk and talk the vision.”